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SPORTS WEEKEND | TV-RADIO / LARRY STEWART

Abdul-Jabbar Gets Rough Treatment

July 23, 1999|LARRY STEWART

Dan Patrick was saying the other day that one reason he jumped at the chance to serve as host of ESPN's "SportsCentury" profiles of the 20th century's 50 greatest North American athletes was because they will be viewed for years to come.

Someday people will look back to see what athletes were like in our era, and when they see the profile on the NBA's all-time leading scorer, which will be shown tonight at 7:30, they'll be in for a jolt.

The show on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, athlete No. 26, is no puff piece. At the end, Patrick sums things up by saying Abdul-Jabbar will be remembered more for "his front-page tragedies, his broken relationships, his brushes with the law, his war with the press and his religious conversion" than what he accomplished on the basketball court.

It's a balanced show, with plenty of positives, but Abdul-Jabbar fans may see it slanted more toward the negative.

Abdul-Jabbar is hammered pretty hard by sportswriters who covered him. Former Times columnist Scott Ostler says he "was the most aloof and moody guy." The Times' Mike Downey says, "There was a condescension throughout his career--who are you to be asking me that?"

Times Sports Editor Bill Dwyre, who as a columnist and sports editor of the Milwaukee Journal covered Abdul-Jabbar during his days with the Bucks, said: "He'd get on an airplane and put a big blanket over his head. Heaven forbid if you were seated next to him on the plane. He was like forbidden territory."

The New York Times' Robert Lipsyte, who met Abdul-Jabbar when he was Lew Alcindor at New York's Power Memorial Academy, says, "I remember Lew in high school as soft-spoken, thoughtful, accessible, a very intelligent, sweet kid who, God help him, was thinking about being a sportswriter. . . . I remember going into the locker room [at UCLA] and reintroducing myself and the sweetness was all gone."

ESPN could have also gotten some tough quotes from Rich Levin, baseball's director of public relations. As the Laker beat reporter for the Herald Examiner, Levin, also a former UCLA basketball player, once wrote a story that alleged Abdul-Jabbar sought a fee for a charity appearance, and the two never talked after that.

In the show, Abdul-Jabbar says reporters portrayed him as aloof and arrogant "because they were self-serving," adding, "It sold papers."

Former Sports Illustrated writer Ralph Wiley, defending Abdul-Jabbar, says, "He was a reflection of his time. How could he not be angry and resentful?"

Comedian Billy Crystal says, " 'Hey, how's the weather up there?' That shapes somebody. Because I know on the other end it's, 'How's the weather down there?' "

Abdul-Jabbar's accomplishments are played up, but so is his sucker-punching rookie Milwaukee Buck center Kent Benson, who was playing in his first game. The infraction drew a 20-game suspension.

To its credit, ESPN, in dealing with a difficult subject, certainly didn't pull any punches.

HORSE RACING VOID

Now that the thoroughbreds have gone south from Hollywood Park to Del Mar, one thing that is missing is a daily show similar to "Hollywood Park Today" on Fox Sports West 2. (A listing in Thursday's Times for "Del Mar Today" was incorrect.)

Hollywood Park produces "Hollywood Park Today" for a minimal cost, and, besides promoting horse racing, the show also gets good ratings. A recent Sunday show did even better than the Dodger telecast it followed. ESPN's Hank Goldberg, who has seen local racing shows across the country, calls co-hosts Mike Willman and Kurt Hoover the two best he has seen.

STILL IN THE NEWS

If television has its way, members of the U.S. women's soccer team won't be fading away any time soon. Craig Kilborn, after returning from a vacation week on Monday, devoted time to the team in his opening routine on his "Late, Late Show" on CBS, and the team was on David Letterman on Tuesday. "They're nice, they're smart, and they're hot," Letterman said.

Goalkeeper Briana Scurry was on Jay Leno late last week and in a brief interview before the taping she talked about her controversial save during the penalty kicks. Did she step too far forward? "It's up to the discretion of the referee," she said. "There was no warning, I was never told I was off my line. But I understand China's disappointment. They came within a hair of winning."

SHORT WAVES

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